Matt Cooke’s Return Bolsters Wild

May 23, 2014 by
Filed under: Sports 

By John Gilbert

There is nothing subtle about Matt Cooke. He is a block of granite who came back from a questionable 7-game suspension to take the Xcel Center ice for Game 4 in the Wild’s uphill battle against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

It took him a couple shifts to feel in rhythm last Friday night, but then he hustled in to strip the puck from Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival in the right offensive corner, barged toward the net, and fed the puck out to the right circle. Justin Fontaine wasted no time firing his shot, but by the time he shot, Cooke was at the crease, drawing a couple of escorts as he got to within handshake distance of goaltender Corey Crawford, who had no glimpse of Fontaine’s shot as it hit the net.

“He’s a playoff performer,” said coach Mike Yeo, talking about Cooke. “The way he created that first goal, and the way he makes plays…He’s a hard guy to play against.”

And his teammates are each several inches taller when Cooke is in the game. Cooke was far from the only star in Game 4, but he was a force, every shift. On one shift, he flung the puck deep into the Chicago zone, just as Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson took a run at him. The collision was big, but Cooke didn’t flinch and Hjalmarsson wound up sprawled himself.

Obviously, Cooke was as ready as he was anxious to return to duty. “I went pretty hard when I wasn’t playing,” Cooke said. “I pushed myself, so when I got the opportunity, I’d be able to make the most of it. Then when the guys beat Colorado, I knew I would get the opportunity. It helped when I was able to get involved in the early goal.”

The Blackhawks tied it 1-1 in the last minute of the opening period, when Patrick Sharp raced around Mikko Koivu, who was caught back trying to play defense, and found an opening that didn’t exist against goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Undaunted, the Wild regained the lead at 2-1 when Jason Pominville scored early in the second period.

Again Chicago tied it, with a deflection goal at 6:28 of the middle period, but Nino Niederreiter broke up the left side and beat Crawford with a great shot to the far edge just 44 seconds later, and the Wild went back on top 3-2, an ample reward for having outshot the Blackhawks 18-9 in the second period.

The third period was a montage of great work ethic and coach Mike Yeo’s master line juggling. First, though, there was Bryzgalov, coming up with the right formula to stop Sharp on a clean breakaway, then he stopped Marian Hossa, who swiped the puck from a tiring Ryan Suter and broke free. It was back to tight checking in the third period, but when the Wild got a power play, Suter fed Mikko Koivu, who passed from the left point to Jared Spurgeon in the right circle. Spurgeon loaded up, took a good look, and drilled his third goal past Crawford at 3:47 of the final session for a 4-2 lead.

Bryzkalov stopped Jeremy Morin twice on point-blank tries, and Yeo went to work. After establishing Koivu with Charlie Coyle and Niederreiter on one line, Mikael Granlund centering Zach Parise and Pominville on a second, and a dazzling third unit with Erik Haula centering Cooke and Fontaine, the fourth line had Kyle Brodziak with Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick. Shifts were shortened in the closing minutes, and Yeo seemed to be working under some cosmic force as he juggled players. He had Brodziak out there with Parise and Granlund one time, and countless other variations.

How was he determining who was fresh enough to go over the boards and play what amounted to modular line combinations? “I had no idea what I was doing out there,” said Yeo.“We’re asking everybody to play a certain way, so it shouldn’t change a whole lot no matter who is out there. We want to be physical, and we want to play smart, but not safe.”

The constant juggling and the quick, 20-second shifts, kept the Wild fresh even after the exhaustive pace, and kept the Blackhawks off-balance as the Wild tied the series at two games apiece. The first round of playoffs gave Minnesota hockey fans a lot of thrills, as the Wild lost twice at Denver, then beat the Colorado Avalanche in both Games 3 and 4 at Xcel Center. The talented Avalanche won Game 5, but the Wild prevailed in Game 6 at the X, then went to Denver and won Game 7 to complete a thoroughly captivating series.

When the Wild lost twice in Chicago to open the second round, Twin Cities columnists kept peppering their readers with the revelation that “The Blackhawks are not the Avs,” implying the Wild had an easy time with the Avalanche, but would have no such gimmes against Chicago. Apparently, they were unaware that Colorado’s inspired 7-1-2 finish allowed them to pass both Chicago and St. Louis to win the Central Division, while the Blues were second, and Chicago was third, six victories and five points behind. “But they’re still the better team,” a columnist told me.

“I think the world of the Blackhawks, but they finished third in the division, and head-to-head, Colorado beat Chicago four out of five meetings this season,” I responded. “Maybe league standings don’t count, and head-to-head match-ups don’t either, but why insult Colorado in order to build up Chicago?”

True, players like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are all high-end players up front for the Blackhawks, but the Wild countered with Parise, Koivu, Pominville, Brodziak, a rejuvenated Heatley, and the prize Kiddie Korps of Granlund, Haula, Fontaine, Niederreiter, Coyle…and, of course, Matt Cooke.

It’s been a fabulous run for a challenging young team that seems to have matured and gained new cohesiveness right before our eyes in the playoffs.

Duluthian Maciver Helps Steer the Blackhawks

It’s rare when you can get an NHL assistant general manager to laugh when you’ve told him you hope his team loses Game 6 of a Stanley Cup Playoff series. But I managed.

It helps that the assistant GM is Norm Maciver, who has proven to be just as astute in helping put the Chicago Blackhawks together as he was helping the UMD Bulldogs compete at the highest level as a clever and creative puck-moving defenseman. Maciver still lives in Duluth, and he was tormented by not being able to get home very often to see his son Steven play for the Denfeld Hunters.

And, recall that when he got his day with the Stanley Cup last fall, Maciver brought it to Duluth to show off to hockey fans at AMSOIL Arena, and later took it on a tour of the Denfeld dressing room at the West End’s Heritage Arena. I had seen Norm last week, shortly after the Minnesota Wild had beaten the Blackhawks 4-2 at Xcel Center. It was such an invigorating victory that when I nearly collided with Norm in the press box, without thinking, I said, “Great game, wasn’t it?” Norm said, “Are you kidding? We played awful.”

Of course, I immediately realized Maciver couldn’t fully appreciate the other team in that setting, and could only see the Blackhawks perspective professionally. We connected again Tuesday morning by telephone, for my KDAL 610 radio show in Duluth, and he evaluated the series, as both teams prepared for Game 6.

“The Wild played exceptionally well in Game 4, and they have all through the series,” said Maciver, whose Blackhawks had ousted Minnesota in a five-game first-round series last year at this time. “If you look at the forwards on both teams, we aren’t quite as deep as we were last year, so our advantage 1-through-12 is not as much as it was. A, the Wild are faster and have more skill, with young guys like Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. You can also see the improvement in those three young defensemen the Wild have — Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Marco Scandella.

“Last year, Jonathan Toews struggled and so did Mikko Koivu, mainly because they were playing against each other. A lot of times, the top guys and the top lines cancel each other out, and it’s your depth that can win a series.”

In goal, Maciver’s Blackhawks have Corey Crawford, who often is criticized for not being “elite” enough, while the Wild has a musical-chairs rotation that now sees Ilya Bryzgalov in the nets as the No. 4 man on the Wild goalie depth chart.

“Last year, Niklas Backstrom got hurt before the first game, and Josh Harding got hurt in about the third game, so the Wild had to go to Darcy Kuemper,” Maciver recalled. “So it seems like more of the same, but you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Wild coaching staff for the way they’ve got that team playing. We used to get a lot of scoring chances against the Wild, but now we get none; they’ve limited our chances.

“Crawford gets a lot of criticism, and a lot of that is because we’ve had a very good offensive team. There are nights we have the puck 70 percent of the time, and when we give up the puck, he might get beat by one. But last year, we won the Cup, and we never would have won it without Corey playing the way he did in Game 6.” Then I asked Maciver, with Game 6 in St. Paul Tuesday night and a potential Game 7 back in Chicago Thursday night, if he wouldn’t really like to see the excitement of a Game 7 back home.

“No way,” he said. “We went through such a nerve-wracking Game 7 against Detroit last year, I’d just as soon not go through that again. I’m all for us winning it in Game 6.” We talked for a bit more, then I told Norm I’d be seeing him later Tuesday, at Xcel Center. “And I’ll be pulling for you to get the chance to go back home for Game 7,” I said.

That’s when Norm laughed. It’s not often you can get an NHL assistant general manager to get a laugh out of someone suggesting they hope his team loses. Nobody knows, but if the Wild could win Game 6 and take the Blackhawks back for Game 7, Minnesota fans can cheer some more, and if the Blackhawks end the Wild season in Game 6, or 7, at least a few Duluthians will get another chance to see the Stanley Cup, close up.


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